Point Lepreau waste disposal plan flawed

Norman Rubin

March 18, 2002

Larry Chamney, Head
Program Management and Environmental Assessment Section
Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
P.O. Box 1046, Station B
Ottawa, ON K1P 5S9

Dear Mr. Chamney:

Energy Probe’s comments on the Draft Environmental Assessment Guidelines for the proposed Point Lepreau Solid Radioactive Waste Modifications

Energy Probe has by no means examined these draft guidelines thoroughly in the twenty-eight days that they were available for public comment. We are concerned that Environmental Assessment in Canada — and apparently in New Brunswick, too — is generally characterized by long periods of preparation of assessment documents by well-funded government and industry organizations, punctuated by incredibly short periods for the assessment of those documents by citizens and citizens groups. This is not rocket science, or nuclear physics, it is just poor regulatory practice. We will comment on a few select passages in the draft scope document. Please do not infer our support for passages not mentioned in this quick review. We hope that there will be a more expansive opportunity for us to comment on the substance of the assessment.

Energy Probe is also concerned that the proposed Environmental Assessment for this undertaking will be accomplished through “self-assessment” by CNSC(1), NBPower(2), and NBDELG(3), rather than under the scrutiny of an independent review body along the lines of an EA review panel. In our extensive experience in the assessment of the impacts of nuclear undertakings, including those involving nuclear wastes, independent panels and the public as a whole consistently take a rather different view of these impacts than officials of CNSC, governments, and nuclear utility companies. Indeed, our most recent experience with an independent panel review of a nuclear undertaking — the so-called “Seaborn Panel” review of the federal government’s concept for deep geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste — showed that such panel reviews have the potential to make rather large steps away from nuclear-establishment “business as usual” and toward the kind of wisdom that we must develop to deal properly with nuclear materials. Indeed, one of the findings of that review was that the federal concept was not acceptable on all six criteria for acceptability, one of which was that it “be advanced by a stable and trustworthy proponent and overseen by a trustworthy regulator.” (Report, Feb. 1998, p. 41) According to our cursory review of that Panel’s recommendations to help CNSC become such a “trustworthy regulator”, none have been implemented.

Increasingly, such independent reviews of nuclear waste matters have suggested that acceptable nuclear waste disposal may not be achievable in Canada, for low-level or high-level radioactive wastes. Indeed, the federal government has apparently – finally – conceded this point in the case of low-level wastes, as it is currently proceeding with plans to place the “historic” radioactive wastes from the town of Port Hope in monitorable, retrievable storage rather than in a permanent disposal facility as was actively planned for the past several decades. Ironically, this same federal government still harbours the hope that a willing host community will be found for the far more radioactive and toxic high-level nuclear wastes created by Canada’s nuclear reactors, including those from Point Lepreau and these facilities.

Indeed, this Draft Environmental Assessment Guidelines refer several times to the plan for the wastes in question to move off-site to a national radioactive waste repository — one which we believe may well never exist. We believe this assessment must include due consideration of that possibility. For example:

Decommissioning Plan:

A conceptual decommissioning plan for the SRWMF will be included in the assessment. The plan will document, as appropriate, the preferred decommissioning strategy and end-state objectives, and an overview of the principal hazards and protection measures envisioned for decommissioning.

The long-term management of radioactive waste, including irradiated nuclear fuel, is being developed through separate federal policy and legislation. No final options or sites have been defined or approved as yet. Provision of national long-term waste disposal facilities is not within the scope of the Point Lepreau SRWMF environmental assessment, and is not part of the decommissioning planning information. (Draft EA Guidelines, pp. 8-9)

Rather than including an assessment of “national long-term waste disposal facilities”, this decommissioning plan must assess the impacts on this facility should such facilities never materialize. Without this consideration, it is simply far too easy to justify the creation of intractable and long-lived toxic wastes while hoping that they will just go away, to some future facility. There is no such facility, and this assessment must not assume there is, or ever will be.

Similarly, the consideration of the Spatial and Temporal Boundaries of the Assessment must not be restricted to a “Long-term” temporal period that only includes the operational period of the SRWMF. (S. 11.2.2, p. 10) These toxic, hazardous materials will be toxic and hazardous for a long term, which is not limited to the operational period of these facilities, or of the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station. The assessment must discuss the provisions – technical and financial – for perpetual care of these wastes throughout their toxic lifetime. We also believe that these financial provisions must adopt the principles of the Report of the Environmental Assessment Panel on the Second Nuclear Reactor, Point Lepreau, New Brunswick (1985), which recommended prudently that “The annual decommissioning levy be scaled so that contributions are higher during the first years of operation.” (Rec. 38 (a)) We note that neither NBPower nor CNSC, the federal “Responsible Authority”, has followed this principle in the funding of decommissioning and radioactive waste disposal at Point Lepreau to date, despite this prudent recommendation. If the assessment does not establish adequate funding for “perpetual care” of these materials, then the spatial boundaries of the assessment must be adjusted to reflect the region of their dispersal without such care.

We are pleased that this review must assess the incremental environmental effects of continued operation of the Point Lepreau NGS following refurbishment. But we are puzzled that the review focusses — starting with its title — on the “Proposed Modifications to the Point Lepreau Solid Radioactive Waste Management Facility”. Indeed, we would not be surprised to find that those effects exceed those of the proposed waste management facility modifications. As a result, we find the presentation of this scope document misleading. We wonder how many potential respondents were lulled into not responding, thinking that only waste facility modifications were at issue.

Further to this point, the discussion of Malfunctions and Accidents (p. 8) seems to be artificially constrained by not including the incremental environmental risk of malfunctions and accidents from the continued operation of the Point Lepreau NGS following refurbishment. Yet this risk is almost surely the most important risk of malfunctions and accidents associated with the undertaking. And section 11.2.4.3 on Assessment of Incremental Environmental Effects of Continued Operation of the Point Lepreau NGS Following Refurbishment seems to go equally far out of its way to avoid discussing the same obvious risk — of malfunctions and accidents during the continued operation of the Point Lepreau NGS following refurbishment. Whether or not there is some arcane legal justification for omitting this obvious and considerable environmental impact, it is unseemly for responsible government and utility officials to go to such extreme lengths to avoid discussing items of such widespread justified concern. Such a discussion must not simply be based on empty “so far, so good” assurances, but must consider the accident risks of an as-designed Point Lepreau NGS, compounded by both the (known and unknown) physical effects of aging and the effects of the increasing design obsolescence of this reactor. Some of those obsolescence effects, though not all, are captured in the CNSC’s list of outstanding Generic Safety concerns.

Finally, the environmental impacts, including risks, of the increased quantity of spent fuel and other reactor wastes from the continued operation of the Point Lepreau NGS following refurbishment must be assessed, without recourse to deus ex machina rescues by non-existent federal waste repositories.

We hope that these comments are helpful, and that you will produce some form of reasons for decision that will paraphrase our concerns and respond to them, whether affirmatively or negatively. And we would like to continue to be involved in this assessment, both as an NGO in the stakeholder consultation program and as an intervenor in the EA process.

1. Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (formerly the Atomic Energy Control Board) is the federal “Responsible Authority” as the regulator of the facility and the undertaking.

2. New Brunswick Power, as the owner of the facility and the proponent of the undertaking, is delegated by CNSC the job of assessing its environmental impacts, and their acceptability.

3. The Minister of New Brunswick’s Department of Environment and Local Government is charged with assessing this project under the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulation of New Brunswick’s Clean Environment Act.

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